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Do you feel like a hibernating bear by this time of year??


Photo by Peter Lee

Well here it is, almost winter again with our days getting dark around 4:30pm (before most of us even leave work).  Sunlight is extremely important for setting our daily rhythms such as sleep, eating, productivity, and energy – by suppressing the neurotransmitter/hormone melatonin (a chemical that causes sleepiness).    Melatonin is secreted in the brain by the pineal gland.  Melatonin levels increase with darkness and decrease in the morning with sunlight.  For that reason, every year at this time I find myself tired all the time and sleeping a lot.   Not only that, but I feel like I have less motivation to actually go out and be social.   My office lacks windows so I don’t even get to absorb what little daylight there is during work hours.   So, I feel like that big guy in the picture, a hibernating bear 🙂

I’ve never been officially diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD – how appropriate), but I have all the symptoms.   Symptoms of SAD include hypersomnia (excessive sleeping), daytime sleepiness, increased negative mood in fall and winter months, lack of energy, and 80% of cases are in women during childbearing years.

 photo by Moyan_Brenn

photo by Moyan_Brenn

There are a few options available for improvement of SAD symptoms, but none of them were shown to completely abolish the negative impacts.   The first is light therapy by using a light box although some prefer tanning (which I do not recommend!) even though reports of this technique has conflicting results.  The time of day the person is exposed to  bright light seems to have significant impact.   It is helpful to try to get outside a few times a day to take a walk just for some natural sunlight exposure (probably the most effective therapy in SAD treatment).   A second option is exercise (in my opinion probably the second most helpful therapy) – multiple studies have shown the importance of exercise for improved mood and energy.  The third option is anti-depressant medications such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, norepinephrine/dopamine reuptake inhibitors and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.  However, finding the right medication and dose could take weeks to months (it could be spring by that time!).    I’ve also written about food and mood before, so eating more healthy foods during the winter months could lower negative impacts of SAD – this includes reducing the amount of sugary starchy carb loaded food (put down that Christmas cookie!) so that insulin levels don’t spike and drop quickly.  Lastly, from personal experience I have found that just getting out and socializing (even when you don’t feel like it) increases mood significantly – if you can incorporate it with activity it is even better (think about joining a sports league with some friends).

If you can combine all of the above suggested treatments I think that is the best option for minimizing SAD symptoms, increasing mood, and increasing energy levels.  I would love to hear some comments from others about their methods for treating SAD.


Kaplan, K. and Harvey, A.  Hypersomnia across mood disorders: A review and synthesis.   Sleep Medicine Reviews.  2009.  13: 275-285.

Bathsalts and synthetic marijuana use…. the zombie reality

on Flickr

Well we sure have heard a lot about the zombie apocalypse lately, haven’t we?  It seems like every month there is a new report about someone getting high on bath salts or synthetic marijuana that ends up hallucinating and becoming cannibalistic.  I even read a report about a man who ate his own dog after getting high on synthetic marijuana (!!?!?!?).  It makes me wonder why, after all of these reports, are people still trying to get high from these drugs?

On Flickr

The ease of finding these drugs are one of the appeals of using them.  While the government has become more strict in the sale of these drugs, they can still be found easily in different forms on the internet, in head shops, or convenience stores.  Temporary restrictions were recently implemented on some forms of both drugs already, but since they are synthetically made, many new forms are popping up, making them hard to restrict in sales and use.

While bath salts and synthetic marijuana have different mechanisms of action on the brain, they elicit similar responses in people who ingest, inhale, or smoke them.   Synthetic marijuana (or also known as “spice” or “incense”) binds to the same receptors in the brain that natural marijuana does.  However, in the synthetic form, they are full agonists of the receptor – meaning they have a way more potent effect than natural marijuana does and they can have longer lasting effects – there is no ceiling of toxic ingestion.   Bath salts work by increasing levels of monoamines in the spaces between the neurons – especially dopamine.  This means that dopamine sticks around longer and binds to more receptors on adjacent neurons.  In normal levels, dopamine helps regulate sleep, wake, reward, mood, attention, memory, learning, and sexual satisfaction.   However, high levels of dopamine can create all sorts of crazy, not to mention harmful, side effects.

Patients who were administered to the ER under the influence of bath salts and synthetic marijuana experience many of the same symptoms:  Paranoia, seizures, rapid heart rate, increase blood pressure, delirium, agitation, hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis.   However, the most disturbing effects of these drugs are the emergence of zombie like behaviors including cannibalism, suicidal ideation, and extreme violence towards people and animals.  Because of the recent increase in these drugs, many long-term side effects are not known and have not been studied (and potential addictive qualities of these drugs are hard to determine).

This blog serves as a warning to anyone who is using these drugs or knows of anyone using them.  Please, think twice (or more!) if you are interested in using them.


Jerry, J., Collins, G., Streem, D. 2012. Synthetic legal intoxicating drugs: The emerging ‘incense’ and ‘bath salt’ phenomenon.  Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.  79:4

Penders, T.M.  2012.  How to recognize a patient who’s high on “bath salts”.  The Journal of Family Practice. 61:4

Is there such a thing as too much coffee?

I didn’t used to think so either…

This is what I would look forward to every morning! This is what made me want to get out of my warm cozy bed.  I love the smell of coffee, the taste of coffee, and that little kick it gives me when I wake up (which is becoming more needed the older I get).  However, I decided a few days ago that I needed to give up my daily caffeine addiction.

So, last week I was feeling awful… I mean I literally didn’t want to move… it was tough getting out of bed, I had headaches, and after work all I wanted to do was nap and not get off the couch.   I made it to the gym but barely had a good work out – and afterwards I was shaking, weak, and light-headed.   Of course my remedy for this was to have even more coffee – in addition to the 4 or 5 cups I was having every morning.   I wasn’t realizing this was making my situation worse.  The last straw was Sunday night, when I had the brilliant idea of drinking the iced coffee I had left in the refrigerator earlier that morning.  After I drank it, I had one of the worst headaches ever – and then I asked myself “what would happen if I just didn’t have coffee tomorrow?”

The next day, not having any coffee, I felt better than I had in weeks! I had more energy and felt more focused and my muscles didn’t feel weak like they had the past few weeks.  So I decided to do some searching on PubMed for any studies linking coffee and fatigue.  I already knew the two were linked because of a study I performed in my own lab.  Super high doses of caffeine actually have the opposite effect than low doses.   In the zebrafish that I study, high caffeine caused the larvae to swim at much slower speeds than the ones treated with low doses of caffeine.

But I also found a very interesting case study that completely described the symptoms I was having.  In a report in Clinical medicine insights: case reports from 2007, there was a woman admitted to the hospital that developed rapid muscle weakness and general fatigue.   After several blood tests, the doctors diagnosed her with hypokalemia (which is a severe loss of potassium in the body).  Apparently, she was drinking large amounts of coffee daily which subsequently leached the potassium out of her body because coffee is a diuretic.

Potassium is essential for proper nerve firing and normal muscle cell functions.  When blood potassium levels become too low muscles become fatigued (with spasms), there is presentation of abnormal heart rhythms and palpitations, and paralysis can occur with severely low levels of potassium.   After reading this article, I decided to keep going on my no coffee (or other caffeinated products) experiment.   Going off caffeine completely isn’t the most pleasant experience.  I was definitely having withdrawal symptoms (headaches, tiredness), but overall I felt 100x better than I did last week.   I actually had two great workouts finally and didn’t feel like I was going to pass out when I finished.   I may eventually add coffee back into my diet, but for now I am feeling great without it.

While this is a documented clinical case report, there still are many other factors that could have contributed to the patient’s symptoms.  While coffee-induced hypokalemia exists, it isn’t widely reported.  This is a great reminder that even the good things in life need to be appreciated in moderation.


1) Yutaka, T. Coffee-induced HypokalaemiaClin Med Insights Case Rep. 2010; 3: 9–13.

2) Richendrfer H, Pelkowski SD, Colwill RM, Creton R. On the edge: pharmacological evidence for anxiety-related behavior in zebrafish larvae.  Behav Brain Res. 2012 Mar 1;228(1):99-106. Epub 2011 Dec 6.

Bee Adventurous

Photo by Michael Graham Richard

Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Personality types are often lumped into one of these categories. Frequent social engagement and novelty-seeking behavior are characteristic of extroverts, whereas introverts prefer to be alone and engage in familiar activities. The differences in brain chemistry that cause these personality traits arise from both ‘nurture’ or individual experiences, and ‘nature’ or genetic predisposition. But which one is more important? This is a classic theme in neuroscience that I will not fully explore here; but new evidence from honey bees scores another point for team nature.

A recent articlepublished in Science by Liang et al. investigates the molecular basis for novelty-seeking behavior in the honey bee, Apis mellifera. The authors seek to understand how individual differences in gene expression lead to behavioral variation. They explain that 5-25% of bees within a population continually seek new food sources, even when there is no food shortage. Other individuals stick to the hive and only venture to new sites after the pioneers or “scouts” have told them the way. But how do bees communicate?

Unlike ants or termites, bees can’t leave a trail of pheromones for others to follow because volatile chemicals like pheromones dissipate in the air. Instead honey bees have come up with a creative mapping strategy.  They encode the location of newly found food sources within a complicated series of movements called the “waggle dance.” First discovered by Karl von Frisch in 1965, the waggle dance is only performed by scouts2.

So what determines if a bee has what it takes to be a scout? As it turns out, dance moves aren’t the only criteria.

Liang and colleagues collected honey bees that consistently displayed scouting behavior and analyzed gene expression in the brain. Several differences in neurotransmitter signaling were found between scout bees and non-scouts. For example, genes that encode receptors for glutamate, a major excitatory neurotransmitter, had increased expression levels in scouts. A direct relationship between glutamate signaling and novelty-seeking was demonstrated when bees that were given MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) showed increased scouting behavior after administration. Differential expression of DopR1, a gene encoding a subset of dopamine receptors, was also found. Blocking dopamine signaling resulted in an overall 44% decrease in scouting behavior.

The authors point out that both glutamate and dopamine are known to be involved in novelty-seeking behaviors among many vertebrates. Interestingly, DopR1 is known to be involved in drug-seeking behavior in humans3. Although the brain circuits involved in this behavioral dichotomy have not yet been sorted out, it is clear that a similar pattern of gene expression is involved in what I like to call adventurousness. Perhaps a closer analysis of the relationship between genetics and adventurous behavior in other animal models will provide a basis for identifying genetic predisposition to drug addiction or even thrill-seeking in humans.

Written By Alyssa R. Wheeler

Me hang-gliding


1. Liang ZS, Nguyen T, Mattila HR, Rodriguez-Zas SL, Seeley TD, Robinson GE. Molecular determinants of scouting behavior in honey bees. Science. 2012 Mar 9;335(6073):1225-8. PubMed PMID: 22403390.

2. von Frisch K. [The “language” of bees and its utilization in agriculture. 1946]. Experientia. 1994 Apr 15;50(4):406-13. German. PubMed PMID: 8174688.

3. Le Foll B, Gallo A, Le Strat Y, Lu L, Gorwood P. Genetics of dopamine receptors and drug addiction: a comprehensive review. Behav Pharmacol. 2009 Feb;20(1):1-17. Review. PubMed PMID: 19179847.

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